• Matthew Whiley

Black History Month

Updated: Jan 14

We're now two weeks into October, which is Black History Month in the UK. It's a celebration of the achievements of black Britons, as well as a memorial to important events in black British history. It's also celebrated in Ireland and the Netherlands at the moment, while in the US and Canada it's held in February.


I thought there would be no better time to celebrate some of the greatest achievements by black British sportspeople, as well as some defining moments in the history of black Britons being involved in sport. It's a good time to reflect how far we've come in terms of progressing towards true equality, but also how much more we still have to do to eliminate systemic racism, both within sport and in wider society as a whole.


This list, is of course, not exhaustive. I'd be here until the next Black History Month recounting every single black Briton who's done something amazing in the sporting world, but I wanted to cover a wide range of sports, so I've cherry-picked the very best. I have, however, given honourable mentions to those who would walk in if this list was longer.


I'll start with Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1). I have to admit, his decision to live in Monaco means I'm not his biggest fan personally, but even the most hardened hater of F1 would struggle to deny that what Hamilton has achieved throughout his career is nothing short of spectacular. Even before we get into his success in the car, he is the first and only black driver in F1's history, which is a particularly sad indictment on the sport, and something it needs to fix sooner rather than later. On track, Hamilton has won six drivers' world titles, including five of the last six, and is well on his way to winning a seventh, currently 69 points clear at the top of the standings. He's won 91 races, which is tied with Michael Schumacher for the most by any driver, and is streets ahead with the number of pole positions he's achieved, with 96. For comparison, it's Schumacher who's in second, and he has 68.


I turned to my F1-loving friend Jack for a little guidance on this next bit, as I'm not the biggest aficionado when it comes to grands prix, but he's advised me that, while picking just one was naturally tough, perhaps Hamilton's best performance behind the wheel came in the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix.


This was the last race of the season, and Hamilton was battling Felipe Massa for the World Drivers' Championship. If Massa won the race, Hamilton had to finish in fifth or higher to be crowned champion. He left it incredibly late, but made the overtake he needed on the last corner of the last lap to win the title.


Now, I know I said I'd give an honourable mention to others in the same sport, but I've also had to say that Hamilton is F1's only black driver in its 70-year history, so unfortunately there is no one else to list. I can only hope that this changes soon, and that F1 can bring more black drivers through, whether they're British or not.


Moving on, then, and our next subject is Marcus Rashford (football). As I write this, the Manchester United striker has within the last half an hour been awarded an MBE, which is testament to what a remarkable year he's had, and his inclusion here comes for what he's done off the pitch just as much as he's done on it.


Of course, it goes without saying, he's brilliant with a ball at his feet, and this post really is about these people's sporting achievements, so let's discuss Rashford's. He's won three major trophies with the Red Devils - the FA Cup, the League Cup, and the Europa League, and he's also got a Community Shield winners' medal, as well as 38 England caps.


But what of his greatest performance? As much as I admire him, even he himself would probably admit he's not the greatest black footballer to ever play for England, yet he's included as the main footballer in this list because of the esteem in which I hold him. The reason for that is because of what he's done this year, so for me, his greatest performance didn't come on the pitch.


Rashford, who is a little over 15 months older than me, and yet has already pressured the UK government into a major policy U-turn in the midst of a global pandemic. After the announcement from the government in June that vouchers for school-age children would not be extended into the summer holidays, Rashford campaigned relentlessly for a rethink, relating to his own experiences of relying on free school meals as a child, and eventually forcing a climbdown from the government. How many other 22-year-olds can say they've had that kind of influence on government policy?


What's particularly brilliant about Rashford is that 75% of his professional career is yet to come, and if what he's achieved so far is anything to go by, we'll hopefully be seeing him achieve a lot more success both within and outside of a footballing context in the years to come.


Thankfully, unlike Formula 1, I could name many great black British footballers, as football as a whole is far more diverse. Ashley Williams (Wales), Ifeoma Dieke (Scotland), Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey, Eniola Aluko, and Ashley Cole (all England) all have either at least 100 caps or are in the top 10 for their countries. Meanwhile, Andy Cole, Jermain Defoe, and Les Ferdinand are all in the top 10 for Premier League all-time top goalscorers. Hope Powell implemented professional contracts for the England women's team and did an immeasurable amount for the development of the women's game in this country. More than deserving of a mention, as well, is Andrew Watson (https://100greatblackbritons.com/bios/andrew_watson.html) who, while he only played for Scotland three times, is believed to be the first black footballer ever to represent his country.


Just down the road from the Old Trafford where Rashford plys his trade is another Old Trafford, and around 25 years ago, you'll have found Devon Malcolm (cricket) playing there. Cricket was quite a tough sport to select a notable black player from, because, frankly, although the situation isn't quite as bad as Formula 1, the black English cricketer remains something of a rarity. I chose Malcolm because, like me, he's a bowler.


The fact he barely knew which end of the bat to hold is also something we've got in common, but unlike me, he went on to appear in 40 Test matches for England, in which he took 128 wickets at an average of 37.09, including five 5-fors.


As for his greatest performance, that most definitely isn't in doubt, coming at the Oval in August 1994 against South Africa. Having been struck on the helmet while batting, he roared "you guys are history!" at the visiting slip cordon, and followed up with a destructive spell of 9-57 in 17 overs as England bundled the Proteas out for 175. That remains the fourth-best bowling analysis by an Englishman in Test history.


The most recent black player represent England in the Test arena is Jofra Archer, who played four bio-secure matches this summer, but besides Archer and Chris Jordan, who has played eight Tests and 34 ODIs, there has certainly been a reduction in the number of black cricketers playing for England recently. It is heartening to see, therefore, that Kent opener Daniel Bell-Drummond has set up his own initiative to reverse that decline.


We will hopefully get to see similarly-match-winning performances as those of Norman Cowans (6-77 in 1982), Dean Headley (6-60 in 1998), and Mark Butcher (173* in 2001), all of whom saved their finest hour for games against Australia. Alex Tudor scored a defiant 99* as a nightwatchman to win a Test match against New Zealand in 1999, and Ebony Rainford-Brent was a trailblazer in 2001 when she became the first black woman to play for England.


Another black woman to represent England is Nicola Adams (boxing), whose best attribute for me is not the fact she's won two Olympic golds, nor retired undefeated in six professional fights. It's not even the fact she was in fact the first female boxer ever to represent England. No, it's the fact she's from Yorkshire!


All the best people are, but I digress. The list of Adams' achievements really does go on and on, and in many cases, they're firsts that can never be beaten. As well as the above, she was also the first English woman to win a medal at a major tournament, the first winner of the GB Amateur Boxing Championships, and of course, she won the first ever Olympic gold medal in women's boxing, and with the delay of the Tokyo 2020 Games, she remains the only woman to have ever won a flyweight boxing gold medal after defending her title in Rio four years ago.


That first gold simply has to be her finest performance, defeating China's then-world number one Ren Cancan in London by 16 points to 7, her joint-largest victory margin of the Games. As for other boxing names, current heavyweight champion of the world Anthony Joshua has to feature, along with household names like Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno. Thankfully, much like football, boxing has been rather more diverse, and we can also count David Haye, Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, and Dillian Whyte among black British boxers who have fought at the top level.


Some names from other sports that I simply can't leave out are Luol Deng (basketball), Efe Obada (American football - if you don't know his story, it's utterly unbelievable, have a read of it at this website here: https://www.thesportsman.com/features/efe-obada-survived-human-trafficking-and-london-gangs-now-he-s-taking-on-the-nfl), Maggie Alphonsi, Jimmy Peters, Andrew Harriman (England), Glen Webbe (Wales), and James Robertson (Scotland) (rugby union), Billy Boston, Clive Sullivan and Roy Francis (rugby league), and Mo Farah, Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Dina Asher-Smith, Christine Ohuruogu, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, and Daley Thompson (all athletics).


I want to conclude by saying Black History Month is a fantastic innovation, and the more promotion it gets, the better. As I said at the start, this obviously isn't an exhaustive list, but drawing attention to some of these deserving sports stars is the least I can do to celebrate Black History Month and support them as they continue to break down barriers.


If you want to find out more information about Black History Month, you can check out the website at https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/ .


Signing off,

Matthew

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